The torch will pass through 20 countries, before returning to China for the domestic relay, which is expected to see the flame travel through Tibet and up the Mount Everest for the first time in Olympic history.
"The torch will for the first time ascend the summit of the world, thereby testifying to the great strength of the Olympic movement in marking the progress of human civilization," Liu Qi, Beijing Olympics chief organizer said after receiving the flame from Greece.
Beijing is hoping that high-profile ceremonies like the annual rites performed for the Yellow Emperor in Xinzheng, in the central Chinese province of Henan, would serve to boost its message of harmony and unity. The rites, which draw thousands of Chinese from the overseas diaspora every year, would include a special ceremony on Apr. 8 to bless the games, performed in front of a giant statue of the emperor.
But to Beijing's chagrin, the countdown to the games has been increasingly mired in international protests over the country's human rights record.
The torch relay dubbed by China as a "journey of harmony" has been hijacked by pro-Tibetan activists, protesting China's heavy-handed rule of the Himalayan region and Beijing's suppression of recent demonstrations by monks and civilians.
Protesters, chanting "Save Tibet" and "Stop Genocide in Tibet" have dogged the weeklong torch relay in Greece and disrupted the flame handing over ceremony in the ancient Panathenian Stadium where the first modern Olympic games were held in 1896.
Activists have demanded that games organizers cancel plans for the torch relay through Tibet, which saw deadly riots mid-March followed by a heavy and ongoing crackdown. Despite the presence of thousands of riot police and troops in the area, fresh disturbances were reported to have broken out in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa on the weekend.
Two starkly different accounts of the events have been circulated by Beijing and the Tibetan government-in-exile, located in the north Indian town of Dharamsala.
China claims the riots were orchestrated by supporters of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and aimed at splitting Tibet from the motherland. Beijing has lashed out at the "Dalai Lama clique" for sabotaging the Olympics and undermining China's international prestige.
However, the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has decried the violence. He has repeatedly said he does not want independence for Tibet but genuine autonomy as promized by the Chinese rulers in 1951 when Tibet signed an agreement with Beijing to become part of the new communist republic.
The Himalayan territory was occupied by the People's Liberation Army in 1951 but Beijing claims sovereignty over Tibet going back thousands of years. Chinese scholars say China's imperial rulers have been conferring titles to Tibet's religious and political leaders since the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368).
As the special plane carrying the Olympic torch was landing in Beijing Monday, the official state news agency Xinhua launched its harshest attack on the Dalai Lama yet, accusing him of abusing religion and plotting to use the Olympics to press Tibet independence claims.
If the Dalai Lama "really wishes to be a simple Buddhist monk it's high time for him to stop playing politics and cheating people, Westerners in particular, with his hypocritical 'autonomy' claims," it said.
The Tibetan government-in-exile has waged a counteroffensive, rejecting Beijing's claims for sabotage and calling for an international investigation into the crackdown. Exiled officials depict the protests as an expression of long-suppressed grievances of the Tibetans. The Tibetan side puts the death toll from weeks of unrest at 140 people. China says rioters killed 18 civilians and 2 police officers.
"Those who know the true facts of the matter know that clearly this is a genuine outcry and outburst against Chinese misrule over the Tibetan people," Karma Chophel, speaker of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile was quoted saying on Sunday.
China "is waiting to label Tibetans as terrorists to try to legitimise their crackdown internationally," Chophel told a press conference held in Rome.
Rights abuses in Tibet may be the most prominent issue of protest by international activists but it is hardly the only one. An array of protests ranging from China's involvement in Sudan's Darfur to its suppression of the Falun Gong Movement and Beijing's support for the Burmese junta could intercept the Olympic torch relay on its passage through London, Paris and San Francisco.
So far Beijing has relied on censoring the offending scenes from its broadcasts for domestic audiences. The government's Chinese Central television excized the incident of pro-Tibetan activists unfurling a black flag emblazoned with five intertwined handcuffs in a parody of the Olympic rings during the flame-lighting ceremony in the site of Olympia in Greece.
But the real dilemma for Beijing is how to deal with a mounting threat of international boycott of its opening ceremony for the Olympics on Aug.8. While no politician has so far called for a boycott of the Olympics over the Tibet unrest, several European leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have said they might stay away from the opening ceremony of the games to step up international pressure on Beijing.
The ceremony has been in the works for years. Its elaborate pageantry would aim to impress the world with images of China as prosperous and unified country, rightfully retaking its place of importance on the global scene.
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Albion Monitor March
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